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Skiffle, the UK Music Craze of the 1950s
How it all began.
The UK Skiffle music craze lasted from about 1953 to 1960 when Rock and Roll began to take hold. A rousing mixture of folk, gospel and blues, Skiffle was first played in the interval at Traditional Jazz gigs, and it's simplicity caught the imagination of teenage boys. Guitar sales rocketed, thousands of Skiffle bands were formed and played at private parties, coffee bars and cellars, and local halls.
Skiffle competitions were held everywhere and produced many well known musicians who went on to build successful careers in other genres.
The first Skiffle Groups were formed when, during a Jazz band interval a few of the band members would change instruments and play this new kind of simple vocal music, a mixture of folk, gospel, country, blues and jazz.
Lonnie Donegan (pictured above) was an early exponent of the genre who went on to become probably it's most famous star performer, earning the title "King of Skiffle".
Updated 18th September 2014
My Own Personal Introduction to Skiffle
You only needed to learn THREE chords!
Though Skiffle came to Britain from America in the early 1950s, I first became aware of it in 1955 when I left school and started an engineering apprenticeship with The Metal Box Company in West London.
I was seventeen and began to enjoy a fine social life with the many friends I made at the apprentice training centre. We all had a passion for traditional jazz, which was in its heyday at the time, and spent our evenings mostly going to jazz clubs and concerts. I lived near the Harrow Jazz Club and went there many times to hear guest bands play. There were many other traditional (Trad) jazz venues dotted around London, but we frequently went right into London's West End to the likes of Ken Colyer's Club in Great Newport Street near Leicester Square.
It was at one of these clubs that I first heard the (then) amazing sound of Skiffle. I had learned to play a few chords on a Ukulele at school, so I had a feel for the music. I went straight out and bought my first guitar. Within days I was strumming away with some of my mates and singing along to "Midnight Special" and "Down By The Riverside", etc.
So began my life-long love of Skiffle.
What is Skiffle?
Skiffle originated mainly amongst poor black people in the American South in the early part of the 20th century.
Music was made using makeshift and home-made instruments such as washboards, jugs, kazoos (comb and paper), tea chests and cigar boxes to provide rhythm and background sounds to accompany a guitar and/or banjo. It was the kind of music made to amuse and entertain at family parties and get-togethers.
Everybody knew the songs which were based on blues, gospel and country music lyrics and all would sing along.
The first recordings of skiffle music were made in the 1920s.
How did Skiffle come to Britain?
As far as I know Skiffle was introduced to the UK by Ken Colyer, a traditional jazz player, in about 1953. Colyer played trumpet and had just formed the Ken Colyer Jazz Band, a standard 6-piece line-up of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, with banjo, double bass, and drums. The band included among others, Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine and Lonnie Donegan. Wherever the band played, they would normally have an interval halfway through the session.
Presumably partly to stop the audience getting bored and losing interest, some of the band members would regroup and play a number of skiffle songs using different instruments. These interludes were an instant hit with the young audiences and soon became a regular feature by popular demand.
Lonnie Donegan and Rock & Roll
When UK Skiffle went Worldwide
Lonnie Donegan became known as the King of Skiffle, and featured on this great recording along with many other music legends including Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Doggett, Fats Domino, Dale Hawkins, Gene Vincent, The Penguins, and James Brown and the Famous Flames, etc., etc.
Lonnie's contribution was his famous "Rock Island Line".
Ken Colyer's Jazzmen - Video Introduction
This short video explains how the Ken Colyer Jazz Band got started and includes some footage of the Skiffle group in action with Ken on lead guitar and vocals, Chris Barber (normally trombone) on double bass, and Lonnie Donegan (normally banjo) as second guitar and vocals. By the time I got "into" skiffle, Colyer had left the band and Barber had taken over. The band became known as The Chris Barber Jazz Band which still exists today. The interval skiffle session had become so popular that Barber continued the tradition and this is when I heard the wonderful sound of Skiffle for the first time. Lonnie Donegan was now lead guitar and vocals and his future as "King of Skiffle" was assured.
This is not truly Skiffle ... - But it's a similar style music and I hope you like it as much as I do.
This bit of music, House Rent Stomp, is half way between Trad Jazz and Skiffle and I found the words interesting. I hope you do too.
Midnight Special - A Skiffle Classic
If you are old enough to remember the Skiffle craze you will know this song. In the mid-1950s every teenage boy wanted to play skiffle, preferably in a band, and there were thousands of amateur bands. Youngsters would somehow find the money to buy a cheap guitar, learn to strum three basic chords, and they were off. More often than not the very first song they learned to play would be "Midnight Special".
This version by the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group has the sound that these budding young musicians were trying to emulate. Try to ignore the video, interesting though it is, and concentrate on the music. Like it or hate it, this is what Skiffle sounded like.
Listen to Skiffle Songs of the 1950s - In the UK Skiffle Craze everybody knew them, everybody sang them. It's sad that they are now almost forgotten.
When I was in my late teens I played in several impromptu Skiffle groups and these were the songs we mainly sang. To hear any song Just Click on the Title. All the videos are curated by Youtube. When you've finished listening - Youtube will send you right back here.
- Midnight Special
This is an early American version sung by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
- Midnight Special - Lonnie Donegan
And this is Lonnie's version which is more like the way it was sung by all the UK Skiffle groups in the 1950s.
- It Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song
(Worried Man Blues) Another favourite with all the groups, sung here by Johnny Cash and The Carter Family.
- I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago
This was The Vipers Skiffle Group. I remember seeing them playing in a cellar below one of the famous coffee bars in London's Soho in the late 1950s.
- Diggin' My Potatoes
A personal favourite recorded 1954 with the Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group made up of members of the Chris Barber Jazz Band. Some interesting notes about the group and a rare chance to hear Pat Halcox (trumpet) playing piano.
- Pick a Bale o' Cotton
Based on a Negro worksong this was recorded in the 1950s by one of the many forgotten UK groups, the Delta Skiffle Group. I'm sure I remember them from the time.
- This Land is Your Land
Another one we all sang regularly, though without perhaps realising it was a protest song. This is an original recording by Woody Guthrie who wrote it.
- Mama Don't Allow No Skiffle Music Here
This is not brilliant music but it shows just how the craze for Skiffle groups got started and some of the musicians went on to stardom. This was an item on the BBC. The young dark haired boy playing guitar is none other than a 12 year old Jimmy Page who later formed the legendary rock band Led Zeppelin!!
- This Train
This is a 1957 recording of the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group.
- The Wreck of the Old '97
This recording of an old Skiffle favourite is by Boxcar Willie, an American Country singer. I remember seeing Boxcar Willie at one of the Easter Country Music Festivals at Wembley Arena in the 70s. Johnny Cash was also among the great stars of Country Music that came over specially for the 3 day event.
- Don't You Rock Me Daddy-o
A rousing rendition of another song much favoured by up and coming Skiffle groups, recorded in 1957 by The Vipers Skiffle Group, another band I saw in a Soho coffee bar cellar. Might have been either the 2"i"s or Heaven and Hell, both very famous then in London's music scene.
- I'm Satisfied with My Girl
This was The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey. Chas McDevitt was beginning to commercialise Skiffle and make the transition from jazz clubs and cellars to Television.
- Lonesome Jailhouse Blues
This record was made in 1933 by the Delmore Brothers. This was 20 years and a World War before the UK Skiffle craze started, but when you hear the close harmony and guitar picking you can understand how this style of music appealed to the simple tastes of 1950s teenagers.
- Down Bound Train
Skiffle is full of train songs. Here's another from the Ken Colyer Skiffle Group recorded in 1956. More nice video footage to go with the music.
- Mama Don't Allow - another version
I'd never heard of this group The Sunday Skifflers, but they sure put their heart and soul (and belly!) into this one. This is a MUST WATCH!
Did You Know?
Before you dismiss Skiffle out of hand you should know that John Lennon, before he met Paul McCartney and formed the Beatles (Heard of Them?), had his own skiffle group The Quarry Men, sometimes known as The Quarrymen, a bunch of schoolboys from John's school, Quarry Bank High.
Just For a Bit of Fun? Me in 1989! - Poor quality video but the performance was appreciated at the time.
Skiffle alive and well, 30 years on! Some friends and I performing "My Old Man's A Dustman", a Lonnie Donegan classic, in our Sports Club annual stage show. That's me on guitar next to the tea-chest bass. Rubbish?? You should have seen some of the other acts!!!
Were you in a skiffle group? What were your favourite songs? Did you go to Jazz cubs? Do you remember the Coffee Bars? How did you dress? Who were your favourite groups? We'd all love to hear from you.